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Superior Court makes appellate argument accessible

A special argument session at Penn State Law on April 1 and 2 allowed the Superior Court of Pennsylvania to bring law to life for area students.
A three-judge panel heard appeals from the trial court level on cases involving civil, criminal, and family law. The Hon. Cheryl Lynn Allen, a Penn State alumna, The Hon. Vic Stabile, a member of the Law School Class of 1982, and The Hon. Christine L. Donohue provided “teachable moments” for area middle-and high-school students.

A special argument session at Penn State Law on April 1 and 2 allowed the Superior Court of Pennsylvania to bring law to life for area students. A three-judge panel heard appeals from the trial court level on cases involving civil, criminal, and family law. The Hon. Cheryl Lynn Allen, a Penn State alumna, The Hon. Vic Stabile, a member of the Law School Class of 1982, and The Hon. Christine L. Donohue provided “teachable moments” for area middle- and high-school students as well as law students.

“The common misconception is that we can somehow decide the facts differently than the trial courts decided the facts,” said Judge Allen in an interview. “We cannot do that if the record supports the decision factually of the trial court. We’re bound by that because we didn’t have the opportunity to observe the witnesses and to make an assessment of their demeanor. We’re an error-correcting court.”

Shirley Donovan, Learning Enrichment and Gifted Support specialist at State College Area High School, and government and politics teacher Andy Merritt brought students to hear the session, as did law professor Jill Engle, who brought Family Law Clinic students. 

“I think it is critical for our students to be here first-hand to witness what happens in court, as many of our students are interested in going into law,” said Donovan. “I think they understand with the instruction of Mr. Merritt what happens behinds the scenes because they do prepare on their own but to actually see a court case makes it real for them.”

Judge Donohue said the Superior Court has at least two special sessions per year and always has great participation. “At the end of the day we know we’ve left Centre County leaving information with these students and others who come to see us as to what the Superior Court does,” said Donohue.

Judge Allen and Judge Stabile said they enjoyed returning to their alma mater and seeing the changes to Penn State. “It’s very nostalgic,” said Stabile. “I graduated in 1982 so I’ve been out for thirty-two years and I should say in the number of hours that I’ve been here, I’ve already re-acquainted with a number of Dickinson people. Nostalgic is a good word to describe it, in fact [Centre County] president Judge [Thomas] Kistler and I are classmates.”

Allen said it was great to come back and see all the changes. “It’s really been wonderful to come back to the College of Education and see all the progress that’s been made,” said Judge Allen. “We were talking last night about how much more diverse the campus is than when I was here.”

The Superior Court, established in 1895, is one of Pennsylvania's two statewide intermediate appellate courts and is often the final arbiter of legal disputes. Judges Allen, Donohue, and Stabile are three of fifteen Superior Court judges. Donohue estimated that the Superior Court judges are about evenly split; half were trial court judges and the other half came from the practice of law. “It brings the perspective of both the trial court and the trial attorneys to our deliberative process,” said Judge Donohue.

“Generally speaking, we get 8,000 appeals and from those 8,000 appeals we write about 5,200 decisions and those other cases are decided on us by motions,” said Judge Donohue. “We touch on every aspect of family life in Pennsylvania, from children’s issues to people have problems with the criminal justice system, to people have disputes with their neighbors.”

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